UK government wants to regulate the Inter Tubes

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In the US tech scene you have weekend “bitchmemes”. In the UK, there is a kind of equivalent known as “government minister opens mouth and inserts foot”. This weekend it was the turn of Andy Burnham, the secretary of state for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS), and as such supposed to take an interest in the Internet. Unfortunately his weekend interview with a newspaper betrayed the simple fact that he knows nothing at all about the internet. Nothing.

Burnham gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph newspaper saying that the UK government is considering “the need for “child safe” websites – registered with cinema-style age warnings – to curb access to offensive or damaging online material.” There would also be “child-safe” internet services run by ISPs and the “option” of introducing age ratings for websites. “This is an area that is really now coming into full focus,” he said. He said some content, such as clips of beheadings, was unacceptable and new standards of decency were needed. He also plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English language websites.

Burnham also mooted other safeguards including “compelling websites such as YouTube and Facebook to remove offensive material within a specified time after they have been alerted to it, and changing Britain’s libel laws to make it cheaper for people to sue publishers if they have been defamed online.”

Let’s deal with the main point first.

Ratings for websites are insane. One minute you have a site showing pink rabbits. The next minute one page of it, buried in millions, could display porn. Films don’t change once they’ve left the cutting room – web sites do. Furthermore, Web sites even have difficulty making allowance for browser compatibility let alone content ratings.

And there is of course the small issue that you can’t regulate content on servers held on other countries. That is unless you are a one party state like Saudi Arabia, nearby Qatar or China. Even there they have problems. And of course, a government saying that it has the matter of Internet content in hand means parents would become reassured that their children are safe to surf the web unsupervised. Not a good idea.

And with the economy collapsing, and the tech sector one of the few showing any signs of having some slim chance of weathering the storm, the last thing we need are government regulations slowing everything down.

Regarding making it easier to sue online. Yes, well, Britain’s libel laws are bad enough as it it is. They are based on Victorian concepts of public reputation and the onus is always on the writer/publisher, not the person being written about. This is the reverse of US law, hence why libel tourists like Hollywood actors like to sue on British courts, not American ones. Add the internet to this heady mix and you have a pretty scary recipe, especially if it gets easier to sue.

At least there is some sense inside government. Tom Watson, of the Cabinet Office, has invited views about Burnham’s comments on his personal blog – so far he has 78 comments – and he will forward the comments to Burnham. Needless to say most of the comments aren’t exactly supportive of Burnham’s ideas.

However, there are legitimate concerns to be addressed, such as those of parents. But there are obvious, existing solutions: desktop ‘net nanny’ software is commonly available. Then there is the small fact that THEY ARE PARENTS AND MAY JUST POSSIBLY BE EXPECTED TO BE IN CHARGE OF THEIR KIDS.

But more seriously, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created PICS some time ago. The Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) enables labels (metadata) to be associated with Internet content. It was originally designed to help parents and teachers control what children access on the Internet, but it also facilitates other uses for labels, including code signing and privacy. However, a quick perusal of the site show that it is in a bad way, and has largely proved too slow to cope with fast moving nature of the Web today.

But the final solution to rating Web content is actually probably going to be an opportunity for a startup. So for example, sign up to Walt Disney Content Label Scheme? Or one run by the BBC? Or Playboy even.

In the meantime, I have kidnapped Andy Burnham’s name on Twitter (more useful than his lame site), until such time as he’s prepared to sit down and listen to some real feedback about his ideas. Then he can have it back.

  • Carl Morris

    However, Mr Burnham said: “If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach.
    (Daily Telegraph piece)

    Errr… any factual basis for this statement?

    Burnham cannot be talking about ARPANET, as that was a project of the US Defense Dept.


      UK GOV is good way to help it

  • Ian Delaney

    I agree with your criticism, but less so with the latter part of your solutions.

    The ‘parents should parent’ idea is, of course, absolutely right. The net is chock-full of filth (quite rightly! – ;-) ) but parents can stop their children seeing any of it by *ta-da* supervising them.

    However, more alleged standards are a lame duck.

    Website creators can’t be bothered to institute basic compatibility standards, let alone PICS, W3A or anything that might interrupt the pretty pictures on *their* browser.

    The fairest ‘solution’ is probably client-side at this point.

    • Chipster

      This is one of the areas that government should not meddle with and goes to the foundations of our Western civilization.

      The obvious solution is client side regulation, leaving the choices for parents in terms of what to allow their children to see, through Net Nanny and the other software available for that.

      There are as many moral standards as there are families. No family wants some bureaucrat to tell them what is morally suitable and what is not.

      If something is deemed illegal, however, that is obviously within the mandate of the government to get out of the internet or block the web content.

  • IBwan

    Perhaps for his next trick, Burnham could suggest that we all use our “government issued ID cards” to access the Internet and therefore validating our age.

    I cant believe how out of touch these people are and they believe the Internet is just another medium that is broadcast and operated by one “controllable” organisation.

    When you have companies moving their operations to other countries to “avoid local law” how do they suppose they are ever going to govern something that is global!?

  • Leon Cych

    Maybe Burnham should also come along and see what teachers are doing with Web 2.0 in schools and how effective it is when it isn’t being locked down by local authorities.

    I’d be interested to see if the 80+ comments on colleague Tom Watson’s blog are as highly publicised –

  • Lawrence Job

    I know what you mean. I’ve got the concepts built for the startup you refer to at the end of the post, but I haven’t got the means to implement it. That’s 1) frustrating and 2) exactly the point of the whole post.

    Maybe we should just ditch the internet, IP protocols and all that DNS/ISP crap and come up with something new, and scalable in the modern world?!

  • Caitlin
  • Santa SEO

    Mike, you not alone…we have the same lame duck here…you’ll find more accurate info on the proposed internet filter for Aus here it is also proposed to include file sharing

    This is the senators blog links to debate sites and heaps of angry comments. The Aus public are being given the ‘mushroom treatment’ yet again..left in the dark and feed BS!! I added an app to my home page y’day to try and get the truth out..the press has been noticeably quiet on the topic :)

  • Sue

    Re. your last paragraph, good luck with that. I’m sure Andy Burnham doesn’t have the first clue what Twitter is, let alone why he would want his own name back.

  • Mark

    You knew it was bound to happen eventually. Once it happened with the TV, it was only a matter of time before they found how to rate online content.

  • Daniel

    You see, moronic, uninformed politicians can be found anywhere, but it seems that this one is also “inspired” on British traditions [Victorian.]
    He is not only so wayyyyy out of touch with reality, but also proving that, although great tasting, single malt does destroy brain cells…
    A question: how would this affect the US Internet side and entrepreneurs? — Zilch. Nothing… but if it weren’t for the sheer stupidity of it all, it could be funny.

  • Charbax

    “One minute you have a site showing pink rabbits. The next minute one page of it, buried in millions, could display porn. Films don’t change once they’ve left the cutting room – web sites do.”

    Nope Mike Butcher.

    Most of the adult-only material most people view online has been browsed on by tens of thousands if not millions of people before. Even if the content is hidden deep on a server.

    So there is plenty of time to tag any adult material as being adult. Thousands, tens of thousands of adults just need to use a browser, for example a customized Chrome or browser plugins on Firefox or IE, which would enable any adult to quickly notice when some adult content isn’t registered as being adult.

    No adult content provider really would have any interest not having their IP adresses and their content registered as adult-only. Adult sites loose money when kids use their bandwidth, cause kids don’t have access to credit cards. So it makes absolutely no sense for Playb#oy or Penth#ouse to want to have any of their content untagged as adult-only.

    Do you want full unfiltered access, just unfitler your connection through a control panel somewhere on something like or something, or on your ISP’s control panel.

    If proxy/tor type of activity is detected on a filtered Internet connection, or if any automated detection of attemps at accessing disturbing or adult-only material, then the adults who pay for the connection should be contacted automatically through email or through that control panel.

    Nope Mike Butcher, you underestimate the possibillities of basic DNS filters, of online control panels and of email based parent-government-ISP communication.

    • Charbax

      Also, fun fact for you guys to think about. 90% of online adult material browsing happens on the same few thousands of servers or domains. So it’s absolutely no problem filtering that out on the main DNS servers.

      Fun fact, 98% of Internet users, including 98% of children, don’t know how to use proxy servers, tor or anything like that. That type of activity using proxies and such can be detected. I mean, the specifics of the activity might not be detected, the the fact that that type of activity happens is easily detected. Thus plenty of time to alert the parents by email that they might want to check on what their children are doing. Try thinking of long lists of good excuses for children to use for using proxy servers or anything of that type.

      Fun fact, user generated content sites like Youtube, Flickr, Facebook try to implement very advanced algorithms successfully blocking most of adult-only material that certain disturbed users attempt to upload to these sites even though it is clearly stated that uploading such content is not allowed. If more and more disturbed people continue to want to upload such adult-only content on such children-safe user generated content sites, then more strict user ID verification technologies based on Google Open Social and other similar user ID technologies could start to require more significant adult ID checks before activating new accounts on their systems. Deeper adult ID checks will also improve those user generated sites in other ways, such as in ways for them to manage ratings, recommendations, advertising and such so there are plenty of reasons to enforce stricter user ID checks at the entrance. Just as bars, clubs should enforce such user ID checks to block entry for minors in their adult-only establishments.

  • http://n/a sam


    you’re a complete f*ed idiot….

    the idea of making the internet ‘safe’ isn’t possible, and i seriously doubt that the author was trying to do that, as much as he was trying to say it should be safe for kids to use.

    and as a guy who knows plenty of parents with kids, i fully understand the approach to have sites/tools that are safe for kids.

    and this goes beyond the net nanny software. it goes beyond the need to have a degree to figure out how to do packet inspection to see if my kids are talking to anyone that they shouldn’t…

    do i have a solution to the issue.. nope.

    but then i also don’t derisively dismiss someone for say that there should be potential solutions either.

    by the way… what’s your solution to making the ‘net safer for kids?? (and don’t just fall back to parent’s watching their kids…) that’s like saying the parents should be responsible if a predator snatches the kid because the parent should have done a better job of watching the kid….


  • y8


  • Mike Jones

    People like Andy Burnham are either incompetent, or fascists, or both.

    This is the same guy who proposed extending copyrights to the life of the author because it’s the “moral” thing to do (no explanation of why it is moral). And, of course, he only thinks of the “creative” industries like music and writing; software and hardware designers will have to continue to give up their copyrights to big companies.

    We really need to organize and get people like Andy Burnham exposed and kicked out of power.

  • http://n/a sam


    i chalenge you to provide facts that support your statement that “…90% of online adult material browsing happens on the same few thousands of servers or domains. …”

    it sure wasn’t the fact when i researched the porn industry 5 years ago.. i doubt if it is now…

    but since you stood up and proclaimed your fact, PROVE IT… of STFU!!

    I get dammed tired of people spouting crap as facts. So.. please show us your supporting logic for your statement.

    • Char#bax

      How about this link:

      If there was such a long tail of users accessing so many different adult content on different adult websites, then alexa wouldn’t show such large difference already among their top 5 adult sites.

      It’s obvious, if you block the top 5000 or so adult sites through the main DNS server of the ISP, those kids aren’t that easily going to know where to go then. Going around on adult sites isn’t exactly the kind of thing most people like to brag about to their friends and family, you know that. It’s more of a private kind of thing.

      Sure the adult content industry is huge, something like 100 billion dollars in revenues per year. So like for the tobacco industry, perhaps that the adult entertainment industry likes to addict future potential customers early, before they are adults, so that they can spend money on it later.

      Fact remains, ask any children’s psychotherapist, there has been a huge change in terms of the consumption of adult contents by the population over the past 10 years, The number of “US Hardcore Pornography Titles Released” coincide exactly also with the advent of the Internet.

      Something has happened and you can’t just do nothing and say that it’s all up to parents to take care of their kids. Parents often also over the last 10 years have had to work harder and longer hours for the same income, which means they have had less and less time to spend taking care of their children as well. The Government needs to step in, and no it’s not by distributing Windows based filtering software. That’s lame and many parents don’t know how to install that type of software.

  • Bonochromatic


    I take issue with your statement, “It’s obvious, if you block the top 5000 or so adult sites through the main DNS server of the ISP, those kids aren’t that easily going to know where to go then. Going around on adult sites isn’t exactly the kind of thing most people like to brag about to their friends and family, you know that. It’s more of a private kind of thing.”

    First of all, blocking the top 5000 sites means a metric crapload of paperwork – that’s a lot, even by British standards.

    Secondly, Google is not in the habit of returning links to URL’s that don’t go anywhere. It would only be a matter of time before Google removed those 5,000 sites from the UK’s (or wherever)’s search results page – making room for 5,000 more.

    And this: “The Government needs to step in, and no it’s not by distributing Windows based filtering software. That’s lame and many parents don’t know how to install that type of software.”

    They don’t have to install that type of software – most parents have come with all of the hardware that they need to affect complete control over their kid’s browsing habits at home – it’s called eyeballs. Put eyeballs on your children, check your browser’s cache when they’re not around, and be open and communicative about what they’re doing, and you’ll go much farther than bureaucracy will get you.

    • Char#bax

      There is no reason Google isn’t going to be in on this. Google has no interest in letting children access adult content.

      Of course, obviously, this plan will have to be done in cooperation with Google, if not even that Europe and the USA should in fact ask Google engineers to make it work, if they don’t already have the basic software ready to update the DNS servers, launch adult browser features so that tens of thousands of registered adults can voluntarily help report all the publicly available adult content, and the secure and safe control panels so that all adults quickly and easily can totally unfilter their connections if they want. You wouldn’t want to disrupt the 100 billion dollar adult entertainment industry too much in this transistion now would you.

      In the past 10 years, parents have had less time with their children cause they have to work more for less money. Also, most parents know less about computers and the Internet then their children. It makes absolutely no sense to require that parents survey all of their children’s online activities. What you need, is ISPs and the Government that automatically help parents detect when or if there might be some adult activity going on by children on their connections.

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  • Graeme Hunter

    There are times where the best attitude to take towards people who so willfully misunderstand the internet like Burnham is just to tap their head repeatedly shouting “McFly”.

  • Paul Nash

    There’s a lot of xenophobic crap in these comments. You lost a lot of credibility with your arguments simply because you slagged the British off. Why can’t you argue against what’s being proposed with logic rather than just name calling ?Pathetic blog posting , not worthy of being on TechCrunch.

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    oh my God, don’t let him meet Berlusconi, they have similar ideas about this topic.. :-|

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  • Paul Walsh

    It’s not about control or policing the Web – or at least, it doesn’t have to be. The W3C is in agreement that there’s a need for content classification and quality labelling – the second most important W3C iniaitive is the Mobile Web Initiative ( – of which I’m a founding sponsor. My point… to make an assertion about your site being mobileOK, you will be mandated to do so, proactively by using a method of labelling content called POWDER (formally known as Content Labels – of which I’m one of the main instigators). Even if you apply all the guidelines correctly your site won’t ‘comply’ – you must use a mobileOK Content Label.

    BTW, PICS is soon to be replaced as it’s outdated and pretty useless. POWDER (AKA Content Labels as described in my post) is about to become a Full Recommendation.

    Here it is in plain English

    You really need to read my blog post to understand where I’m coming from.

    • Jim

      Oh no Paul Walsh thinks that he has a solution: (

      If Segala is the “solution” then it is clear from this post that nobody wants it.

      Just crack on and get that mobile social network called Wubud released rather than pitching snake oil like Segala, unless Wubud has already entered the deadpool?

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